What Is Mindfulness?
What Is Mindfulness?
Dear Tacit,

I hear a lot about the term “mindfulness” but I don’t really know what it means.  Can you explain?

Signed:  What Is Mindfulness?

Dear What Is Mindfulness,

Believe it or not, the term “mindfulness” has been with us since the late 1800’s.  But well before then, the concept itself has been with us as “sati”, since the beginning of Buddhism.  The practice of mindfulness as a treatment modality in therapy and as a mainstream western world approach to life really seemed to start to evolve in the 1970’s, and took off with a surge in the late 1990’s.  It has been a growing familiarity ever since, largely due to the fact that it is an incredibly successful way of managing almost everything with peaceful and calm outcomes.

In simple terms, mindfulness means paying full attention to something.  It is the ability to keep one’s focus on the present moment, and tying into our thoughts, feelings and bodily responses as they happen. Mindfulness is the absence of negative judgement and reproach, especially of self. It is the acceptance of reality without condemnation.  And mindfulness is a skill that any person can develop, with a little practice.

We are all born with the natural tendency to jump into an anticipatory process (thoughts and worries about what might happen in the future).  This is sometimes called negative bias, and it is designed to protect us and keep us alive.  Many of us have inadvertently trained our brains to also jump into a reviewing process (replaying situations from the past, in the hope that we will learn from them).  Both of these activities take us out of the present moment and tend to get us stuck in ruminating patterns that increase feelings of helplessness, anxiety, depression and overwhelm.  They are usually quite exhausting and distracting.

In contrast, mindfulness is a grounding or anchoring technique that roots us into the present moment.  It is the pathway through which our mind focuses on what is manageable and within our control (through the choices we can make as we respond to our circumstances) by creating a current connection between our thoughts, feelings and bodily responses.  It allows a person to become aware of/experience and release the emotional reactions they have to any given situation.  Trust (though awareness and familiarity with one’s own self) is strengthened and resiliency is enhanced.  Trauma reactions are less likely to happen and emotional baggage does not develop. A sense of serenity and soothing comfort result.

There are so many different mindfulness activities that exist that I could never begin to list them all (trust that there are more than a few that will fit well with any personality type).   In general, a mindfulness activity is something that allows a person to wholly connect to themselves (physically, emotionally and mentally) through the use of the body or the mind as the foundational stronghold.  It is NOT a technique that encourages a person to avoid their feelings or skip over the emotional processing that is so essential to wellness.  Rather, it helps a person work through their emotions in a way that creates safety and balance (with the body and thought responses).

For example, if a person is more able to recognize signs of stress in their body, they might utilize physical exercise, Body Wiggles or stretching, Progressive Muscle Relaxation, Yoga, showers/baths, deep breathing techniques, or Meditation (structured or indirect – like when we sip a cup of tea or take time to enjoy a favourite food) to help calm the nervous system and send a message of reassurance to their brain that they are safe and able to handle what they are feeling.

If a person is more cerebral and often experiences awareness of their distress by way of their thought patterns, they could use Visualization techniques, Guided Imagery exercises,  the 54321 technique, the Turn The Channel strategy, and the STOP (Stop, Take a breath, Observe feelings, and Proceed with what helps release those feelings) or RAIN (Recognize, Allow/Accept, Investigate and Non-identify) strategies to calm the nervous system and create a soothing environment in which they connect to and release their emotions.

Remember though, using mindfulness requires practice.  We need to use these techniques frequently and when we are NOT in crisis, to get comfortable with the flow and immediacy of the patterns.  We want to reprogram our brain so when we do start to get flooded or feel stressed/upset about something, the natural tendency will be to turn to mindfulness automatically.

The habitualization of these healthier and more productive ways of dealing with life takes far less energy than when we are trying to make a conscious effort to remember to do it. And these patterns of response build compassion, acceptance and trust within self, which fortifies our esteem and our confidence in who we are, even in challenging moments.  Mindfulness allows us to build on our strengths, instead of on our deficits.  And that’s the only way we can grow our feelings of happiness and peace, even when life is reigning chaos.

Take care!

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